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Prof. Dr. John Steele

Research Interests:

History of Astronomy, Assyriology


John Steele is Professor of the History of the Exact Sciences in Antiquity in the Department of Egyptology and Assyriology at Brown University. He received his PhD from Durham University in 1998 and before taking up his position at Brown in 2008 he held research fellowships at Durham University, the University of Toronto, and the Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at MIT. He specializes in the history of Babylonian astronomy and astrology and their place within Babylonian scholarship and culture. He is also interested in the circulation of astronomical knowledge in the ancient world, the history of time measurement and calendars, and the historiography and reception of ancient astronomy from the eighteenth century to the present. Steele is the editor of the series Scientific Writings from the Ancient and Medieval World and a member of the editorial boards of the Journal for the History of Astronomy, the Journal of Skyscape Archaeology, and SCIAMVS.

Project Abstract

My project investigates the relationship between time, astronomy, and ritual in Late Babylonian Mesopotamia. Time plays an important role in ritual practice in the vast majority of both historical and contemporary cultures: rituals are often performed on specific days in the calendar and/or at specific moments during the day and night. Babylonian rituals are no exception: evidence points to a detailed cultic calendar in which rituals are performed on specified dates. Furthermore, some ritual texts specify that certain activities should be performed at set moments defined either by the observation of an astronomical phenomenon such as the culmination of a particular star or at a certain interval of time after or before sunset or sunrise. 

My project examines the various references to time (both calendar time and time at the sub-day level) in the Late Babylonian ritual texts and the evidence of ritual practice contained in the historical sections of the Astronomical Diaries. These references will be examined to see whether they have any astronomical significance (e.g. dates such as solstices and equinoxes, the dates of first appearance of certain constellations) in order to explore the connection between ritual time and astronomy. In doing so the project examines the role of ritual as a point of contact between different, though sometimes overlapping, groups within Babylonia: astronomical scholars, ritual experts, and the audience of and participants in ritual practice.

Curriculum vitae

2012-present: Professor of the History of the Exact Sciences on Antiquity, Brown University

2008-2012: Associate Professor of the History of the Exact Sciences on Antiquity, Brown University

2004-2008: Royal Society University Research Fellow, Durham University

2002-2004: E. P. May Fellow, University of Toronto

1999-2002: Leverhulme Trust Research Fellow, Durham University

1998-1999: Postdoctoral Fellow, Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology, MIT

Selected Publications

“How Can We Incorporate Visual Evidence into the History of the Astral Sciences in Mesopotamia?”, NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin 28 (2020), 305–324.

“Explaining Babylonian Astronomy”, Isis 110 (2019), 292–295.

The Babylonian Astronomical Compendium MUL.APIN (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019). With Hermann Hunger. 

Rising Time Schemes in Babylonian Astronomy, Springer Briefs in the History of Science and Technology (Dordrecht: Springer, 2017).

“A Late Babylonian Compendium of Calendrical and Stellar Astrology”, Journal of Cuneiform Studies 67 (2015), 187–215.

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